Animals held special religious significance for in Ancient Egypt. As early as predynastic times, animals were given special burials near the graves of the wealthy at Hierakonpolis. Renée Friedman (2003) has discovered the remains of elephants associated with a specific elite tomb which may have housed an early king in predynastic Hierakonpolis. She has hypothesized that the elephant was the ka of the great ruler as early pharaohs associated their names and powers with specific animals. In dynastic times, mortuary practices for special animals became more elaborate an are found on a larger scale.
Saqqara is home to more than just pyramids. It is also home to many animal cults. North Saqqara is sometimes referred to as the animal necropolis. The most famous of these, of course, is that of the Apis bull made famous after Auguste Mariette discovered the Serapeum in North Saqqara. The Apis bull was seen as “the living image of Osiris,” and he had a temple in Memphis and a tomb in Saqqara (Mariette-Bey, 1928, p. 10). Mariette (1928) gauged that the Serapeum dates to the 16th Dynasty and lasted through the years of the Ptolemies. The Louvre houses some artifacts uncovered by Mariette such as statues of the Apis bull where sanctuaries once stood and sphinxes that lined the processional way up to the temple (David, n. d.). These findings point to the religious importance of the site and the high esteem with which the Egyptian people held the deity.
Later excavations in Saqqara revealed other mummified animals outside the Serapeum. Emery (1965) went to Saqqara seeking the tomb of architect Imhotep and instead found mummies of bulls and thousands of ibis mummies in a labyrinth. Most of the mummies were from the Ptolemaic period, but some dated to the Old Kingdom. Paul Nicholson (1994) expanded on this work by further exploring hawk (or falcon), ibis, mothers of Apis, and baboon catacombs. He found both genuine mummies and pseudo-mummies made of different kinds of bones. Of the birds, ibises were more likely to be genuine mummies according to Nicholson because they were easier to raise in captivity than birds of prey. Therefore, there was a larger supply that could be mummified.
Site reports from the archaeologists who dug at these sites provide the most information. Their findings are important because animal cults provide a piece of Egyptian religious life. These religious cults using animals to honor specific gods are also a reflection of the wealth in Egypt, particularly in the New Kingdom and Ptolemaic periods that many of the mummies date to. The animals were carefully buried in catacombs, and it would have been expensive to construct the labyrinths and prepare thousands and thousands of animals for burial. This was particularly true for the Apis bull that had great national importance, and everyone mourned at his death (Ray, 1978, p. 151). Finding a successor that met all the appropriate requirements was carefully accomplished. Money was spent on the Apis bull to keep him alive and healthy, and it was appropriate to bring him gifts and offerings. There is a lot of focus on the greatness of the tombs built for pharaohs, and although mortuary findings from animals are not necessarily of the same caliber, they still had central significance in Egyptian religious life just as the pharaoh did.
David, E. (n.d.). Apis bull. Retrieved from http://www.louvre.fr/en/oeuvre-notices/apis-bull
David, E. (n.d.). Processional way of sphinxes. Retrieved from http://www.louvre.fr/en/oeuvre-notices/processional-way-sphinxes
Emery, W. B. (1965). Preliminary report on the excavations of North Saqqara 1964-5. The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology, 51. 3-8.
Friedman, R. (2003). The elephant is revealed. Retrieved from http://www.archaeology.org/interactive/hierakonpolis/field/elephant2.html
Mariette- Bey, A. (1928). Classics of science: Discovery of the Serapeum. The Science News-Letter, 13 (352). 9-10.
Nicholson, P. T. (1994). Preliminary report on the work at the sacred animal necropolis, North Saqqara, 1992. The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology, 80. 1-10.
Ray, J. D. (1978). The world of North Saqqara. World Archaeology, 10 (2). 149-157.